ALLENTOWN, Pa. — House Democrats’ return to the majority runs through Pennsylvania.
Redistricting, retirements and resignations have roiled the state’s political landscape over the last nine months, shuffling the partisan and geographic makeup of Pennsylvania’s congressional districts and yielding a whopping seven open seats out of 18 ahead of Tuesday’s primaries. The upshot of all that chaos: a wider playing field for Democrats in a state that helped deliver President Donald Trump the White House two years ago, with the opportunity to gain as many as five districts in November.
That’s a significant chunk of the 23 seats Democrats must net to take back the House, and Republicans have already responded with plans to spend millions of TV ads in the fall. But the flip side to the turmoil has been an unusually raucous set of primaries, some of which started late because of the court-ordered redraw of Pennsylvania’s districts in January. Those bruising contests — including one in which the two of the three leading candidates claim the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee discouraged them from running — could yield weak or wounded candidates in the general election.
“All roads lead through Pennsylvania, even more so this cycle with redistricting,” said Chrissy Houlahan, a Democratic candidate running for retiring GOP Rep. Ryan Costello's seat in the Philadelphia suburbs. “Many of these races will be indicators as to whether the House flips.”
Costello retired in the spring following changes to his district ordered by Pennsylvania’s state Supreme Court, which ruled in January that the congressional map was unconstitutionally gerrymandered in favor of Republicans. The map turned his district, already competitive thanks to Houlahan, into one of Democrats’ best pickup opportunities nationwide, along with another open Republican seat outside Philadelphia.
But even as it made numerous districts more Democratic (GOP consultant Christopher Nicholas called it a “Democratic wet dream” at the time), the redistricting also flung many of the party’s primaries into disarray. Republican Rep. Scott Perry's Harrisburg-based district became potentially competitive for the first time, dropping from double-digit support for Trump in 2016 to a single-digit edge, but it’s unclear who will emerge from the crowded Democratic field.
Everything from the geographic boundaries to the partisan lean — from pro-Trump to a narrow Hillary Clinton advantage — changed in retiring Rep. Charlie Dent's Allentown-based district, where Democrat Susan Wild had already ordered pamphlets, T-shirts and buttons with “PA-15,” the old district number on them.
“We had to Sharpie them,” said Wild, the EMILY’s List-endorsed former Allentown city solicitor.
Two of Wild's opponents — Bernie Sanders-endorsed pastor Greg Edwards and well-known Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli, the leader in public polling — said the DCCC tried to maneuver them out of the race. The Washington Post reported in March that a DCCC operative asked local Democrats if Edwards or Wild would exit the House primary to run for a state Senate seat. The Edwards campaign told The Morning Call in April that a DCCC staffer suggested that former Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan “would have strong fundraising,” though Callahan never entered the race.
“I think the people should select their candidate,” Edwards said between calls to undecided voters on Friday. “Anything short of that becomes an infringement of democracy.”
Wild said she was never directly approached by the DCCC, but she “heard rumors” that the committee was “fishing around.”
“Early on, the party probably should let the field form for itself,” Wild said. “I would hate — and I’m talking about a generic race, not this one particular — to see somebody get a big leg up just because he or she is perceived by them to be a stronger candidate, because I don’t think we know, six or eight months in, who the really strong candidate are going to turn out to be, and that’s certainly true in this race.”
Morganelli, meanwhile, has attracted national notoriety among progressives for his vocal criticism of illegal immigration and past praise of Trump on Twitter. (“Hope to serve,” Morganelli wrote.)
Morganelli said that as he was considering his campaign, he also received a call from a DCCC staffer who said: "'I don't know if you're the right guy because of your [Trump] tweets.' And I said, 'I’m going to run and I don’t care what you think.'"
“The DCCC didn’t like any of us,” Morganelli added.
“Given that Pennsylvania’s congressional maps were completely redrawn, it’s typical for candidates to recalculate their campaign plans, as we saw in a number of districts,” said DCCC spokeswoman Amanda Sherman. “We made on-the-ground assessments of the political landscape, including multiple Democratic candidates’ next steps. At no point was any candidate ever asked to drop out of the congressional race.”
Due south, in Bucks County, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick is the lone remaining Republican incumbent, out of three elected in 2016, running for reelection in the “collar counties” outside Philadelphia. Clinton carried his seat by two points as Fitzpatrick replaced his brother, former Republican Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, in Congress.
But the Democratic primary to take on Fitzpatrick turned negative quickly. Scott Wallace, a self-funding philanthropist who is favored after spending $2 million of his own money on the race, went after Rachel Reddick, a 32-year-old Navy veteran, for being a registered Republican “her entire life” in one TV ad.
Reddick, who’s backed by EMILY’s List and VoteVets, a Democratic veterans group, tagged Wallace as a carpetbagger, calling him a “Maryland millionaire” who “isn’t one of us,” in another TV ad.
“Until last year, he was registered to vote at his mansion in Maryland and directed ballots to his home in South Africa in a gated, luxury estate,” the ad’s narrator says.
Wallace, sipping on an IPA before a small-dollar fundraiser on Friday night, said that he’s “returned home with the skills I’ve accumulated over the last 40 years,” adding that he now lives in the “home I was born in” and his parents’ ashes are buried in the backyard.
Reddick, meanwhile, believes her Republican past makes her better prepared for a general election “because we need more people reaching across the aisle,” she said.
But operatives and voters alike worry that “all the terrible infighting” has handed over the “playbook to Republicans,” said Janet Ecksel, a pro-Reddick voter from Upper Southampton, who attended a candidate forum on the opioid crisis last week.
“Wave or not, Democrats are going to pick up seats here, but their success depends a lot on the kind of candidates they pick on Tuesday,” said Mike DeVanney, a Republican consultant based in the state. “Pennsylvania is going to be ground zero in terms of spending for both parties.”
Republicans see a glimmer of an opportunity against Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright, who hung on to his seat in 2016, even as Trump won it by nearly 10 points. He’ll face Republican John Chrin, a businessman who outraised the congressman last quarter.
The National Republican Congressional Committee made Pennsylvania its largest commitment in its first round of TV ad reservations for the fall, booking $11.6 million of ad space on stations in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, where recent special election victor Conor Lamb will face Rep. Keith Rothfus in a different, newly drawn district this fall. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, also announced plans to spend $1.4 million defending Fitzpatrick.
And outside spending has already started pouring into some primaries. EMILY’s List’s super PAC; United Together, a super PAC with connections to the bipartisan advocacy group No Labels; and NextGen America, Democratic megadonor Tom Steyer’s group, are all involved in the Democratic primary in Dent’s district.
“The super PACs are battling it out on TV and mail, and the candidates are just sitting around ... like this” Morganelli said, resting his chin on two fists, cartoonishly swinging his eyes from side to side.
But all the primary mudslinging has not raised Republican hopes too high.
“We had competitive races before redistricting, and we have competitive seats now, but now the environment — the energy, the intensity — is more advantageous to the Democrats,” said Dent.